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Archive: 4 March 2008

Principles and Legality

I woke up this morning (duh DAAAH dah DUH) and yesterday’s announcement was the first thing on my mind.  No doubt it’ll be a recurrent topic, at least for a little while.

One of the takeaways is what this change demonstrates about the IE team:  standards is and was their preferred default.  If it weren’t, they just would have found a way to square the IE7-default behavior with the Interoperability Principles announced late last month (slightly tricky but entirely possible).  That they initially chose otherwise speaks volumes about the pressures they face internally, and their willingness to publicly change direction speaks volumes about their commitment to supporting standards.  While I’m sure community feedback informed their decision, they pretty much knew what the reaction would be from the get-go.  If that was going to be the deciding factor, they would’ve chosen differently up front.

So what drove that change?  I keep coming back to two things, both of which were explicitly mentioned in yesterday’s announcement.

The first is, perhaps obviously, the previously mentioned Interoperability Principles.  Head on over there and read Principle II, “Support for Standards”.  If that isn’t a solid foundation on which to build an internal case for change, I don’t know what is.  I’m wryly amused by the idea that the IE team used the Interoperability Principles as a way to batter their way out of the grip of those internal pressures I mentioned.  The former aikido student in me finds that very satisfying.  True, the Principles came under fire for being just another set of empty words, but it would seem that they can be used for at least some concrete good.

As for the second, there’s a phrase repeated between the two announcements that I didn’t quote yesterday because I was still pondering its meaning.  I’m still not certain about it, but having had a chance to sleep on it, my initial reading hasn’t changed, so I’m going to quote and comment on it now.  First, from the press release:

“While we do not believe there are currently any legal requirements that would dictate which rendering mode must be chosen as the default for a given browser, this step clearly removes this question as a potential legal and regulatory issue,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft senior vice president and general counsel.

And then in Dean’s IEblog post:

While we do not believe any current legal requirements would dictate which rendering mode a browser must use, this step clearly removes this question as a potential legal and regulatory issue.

Okay, so they’re on message.  And the message seems to be this: that Opera’s move to link IE development to the larger EU anti-trust investigation bore fruit.  I was highly critical of that move, and unless I’m seriously misreading what I see here, I was wrong.  I’m still no fan of the tone that was used in announcing the move, but that’s window dressing.  Results matter most.

Speaking of Opera, there’s another side to all this that I find quite interesting.  So far, the reaction to Microsoft’s announcement has been overwhelmingly positive.  The sense I’ve picked up is, “Hooray! IE will act like browsers always have, and the problem is solved!”.

But is it?  The primary objection raised by Opera and several members of the community was that version targeting is an anti-competitive move, one which will force browser makers like Opera and authors of JavaScript libraries to support an ever-increasing and complex web (sorry) of rendering-engine behaviors in the market leader.  So far as I can tell, the change in default behavior does next to nothing to address that objection.  The various versions will still be there and still invoke-able by any page author who so chooses.  Yes, the default will be better for authors, but I don’t see how things get any better for Opera, Firefox, Safari, jQuery, Prototype, et. al.

Perhaps I’ve missed something basic (“Again!” shouts the chorus).  If so, what?  If not, then why all the hosannas?

March 2008
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